As part of parent NBC's push to beef up news at its owned stations, its WCAU Philadelphia has upped its game. With new people and tools, including SkyForce 10, a state-of-the-art Bell helicopter with four HD cameras, there's a new approach to reporting news, one that involves expanding the station’s geographical coverage, heightening investigative and enterprise work and putting news in better context. “A year ago we were probably more reactionary — something would happen and we would react. And now we are a little more thoughtful in our process, more balanced, a lot more measured,” says News Director Anzio Williams.
WCAU Hopes To Fly High With New News
SkyForce10 has to be one of the coolest things in Philly these days. State-of-the-art to the utmost, WCAU’s new chopper has all the appeal of a sleek and expensive sports car — only it’s way bigger and way better than anything you’ll ever see in any driveway.
Outfitted with four HD cameras and a backseat telestrator and parked right outside the studios, it’s ready to go to wherever the story is.
“It’s a powerful piece of equipment and we treat it as such,” says Anzio Williams, who gets to say where it goes as news director of the NBC O&O. “It is not a taxicab.”
More than a newsgathering tool, this technological wonder serves as a symbol of station’s determination to become a more competitive news presence in the nation’s fourth-largest market after decades of trailing ABC’s dominant WPVI and too often CBS’s KYW.
NBC is making a big investment in the talent and resources of WCAU, part of a larger effort to upgrade news at all the O&Os that suffered from tight-fisted General Electric management before Philadelphia-based Comcast acquired control of NBC in early 2011.
“Our goal is very simple: to be No. 1 or No. 2 in every one of our markets,” says Valari Staab, president of the NBC Owned Television Stations. “We feel like what we have, and what we can do well, is local news. So we need to do it better than everybody else.”
At WCAU, branded as NBC 10, NBC expects to achieve the goal the old fashioned way, with better management, better talent, better hardware and a little sizzle to sell it all to viewers.
The push to revitalize WCAU began in earnest in March 2012 with the hiring of General Manager Eric Lerner from Cox Media’s KIRO Seattle to replace Dennis Bianchi who moved cross-town to Fox’s WTXF.
Lerner’s key hire in turn was Williams, whom he found at KCRA, Hearst’s NBC affiliate in Sacramento, Calif. Lerner also brought in Annette Parks as VP of engineering and operations and Rob Halpern as VP of sales. Kathy Gerrow, a 30-year WCAU veteran, was promoted to assistant news director.
For viewers, the most obvious sign that something big is up at WCAU is the influx of new on-air talent, the departure of some longtime personalities like Dawn Timmeney and Tim Lake and the shuffling around of others.
WCAU has been mixing it up, trying new and familiar personalities in different slots.
In the morning, station veteran Tracy Davidson now shares anchoring duties with Keith Jones, who joined WCAU last year from WTAE Pittsburgh, a Hearst ABC affiliate. They also co-anchor the newscast at 11 a.m.
At 4 p.m., 20-plus-year veteran Renee Chenault-Fattah co-anchors with newcomer Jacqueline London, who just joined the station from WKMG, Post-Newsweek’s CBS affiliate in Orlando, Fla. London stays on at 5 p.m., when she is joined by Val Sikahema, a longtime staffer who doubles as the station’s sports director.
Chenault-Fattah returns for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, both of which she anchors solo.
SkyForce 10, a Bell 206 L4 LongRanger, is just the most visible element of WCAU’s enhanced newsgathering ability. NBC has equipped the stations with 15 new news vehicles with HD capability and they are complemented by a batch of bonded cellular units that extend the station’s ability to go live from the field.
The WCAU news set now features an 82-inch touch-screen monitor, a giant iPad that anchors can use to tell stories. It was used extensively during coverage of the Philadelphia building collapse earlier this month.
With the new people and tools, Williams has instituted a new approach to reporting news, one that involves expanding the station’s geographical coverage, heightening investigative and enterprise work and putting news in better context.
“A year ago we were probably more reactionary — something would happen and we would react. And now we are a little more thoughtful in our process, more balanced, a lot more measured,” Williams says.
Williams cites as an example the way WCAU now covers neighboring Camden, N.J. In the past, it was mainly a source of crime stories.
But there is more to the community, Williams says. “Not everybody is going to be victim of a murder or a robbery or caught in gunfire … so the only time we go to Camden can’t be when there’s a murder.”
In March, WCAU covered a story that has real meaning for Camden residents: the opening of a supermarket for the first time in 30 years.
“We are not talking about fluff, but we are talking about getting into neighborhoods and doing stories,” Williams says. “Our job as journalists is to make sure our newscasts represents our lifestyles.”
“As we increase our value, more people will watch,” Williams says.
The behind-the-scenes changes at WCAU showed up on screen last October when the news team mobilized for Superstorm Sandy, Lerner says. The team covered the storm aggressively from the get-go, fanning out across the region a day before it hit the area, bringing crews in from other NBC-owned stations.
Lerner says the team struck the right tone, too, by providing critical information without being alarmist.
A good example of the station’s tenacity came in February when it broke the story of a five-year-old girl being abducted from her school, says Williams. Although the girl was found safe the following day, the station stayed with the story, pressing the Philadelphia schools superintendent on child safety after reporters were able to enter several schools without being challenged.
“We were able to use a team of reporters to look at every angle of this story,” Williams says. “It was a great example of advocacy journalism in response to concerns in the community.”
WCAU’s reinvention of itself also extends to weather. Newly branded NBC 10 First Alert Weather is designed to serve viewers better by pinpointing forecasts to their communities, while eliminating meteorological jargon that means little to people who simply want to know whether it’s going to rain.
The station has also done away with various distractions. In addition to nixing production of nightly news for Tribune independent, WPHL, WCAU scrapped the 10! show, a midday half-hour lifestyle program.
“We didn’t have our eye on the ball,” Lerner says. “There wasn’t focus.”
Another sign of WCAU’s seriousness about news and its renewed competitiveness was the decision last fall to drop a news sharing arrangement with KYW and WTXF that included a common helicopter.
WCAU is making sure viewers are reminded of the investment its making. Promo campaigns now command more on-air time than ever before, according to a station spokeswoman. And they include more outside media including radio, cable and outdoor space. “It’s time to change the perception,” Lerner says.
It’s early, but WCAU seems to be making progress.
The Nielsen marks are good so far. In the just completed May sweep, WCAU’s 6 p.m. newscast finished with a 1.1 rating/5 share in the 25-54 news demo, up from 0.8/4 in May 2012. That pushed it past KYW (0.9/4), which was down slightly, but left it far behind WPVI, which also gained and maintained its three-to-one edge in viewership.
WPVI’s lead is not nearly as daunting at 11 p.m., but there was little movement in the May-over-May sweep numbers. WPVI recorded a 3.5/10 in the demo. WCAU squeaked by KYW for second place with a 2.4/7.
Local media critics are noting the on-air improvement. “It’s clear to anyone who watches NBC 10 that they have made a commitment to be in the hard news business,” says Temple University media professor Paul Gluck, a former news director at WCAU and KYW. “I think they very much want to do news in big bold letters.”
But Gluck and others say the WPVI habit will be hard to break.
“This town has allegiances,” says Stephen Facenda, a veteran of Philadelphia broadcasting who now heads the Philadelphia ad agency Viamark. “WPVI’s opening song for their news has been the same since 1972. What does that tell you?”
Patience may be the key, says Gluck. Change at the Big Three affiliates has been “constant and chronic” over the years, he says. “This requires that you make a decision, you invest in a product and you stay in it long enough to cultivate your own audience.”
Lerner says he knows that establishing WCAU as a solid No. 2, let alone significantly closing the gap with WPVI, will take time.
“This is not a one-day project,” he says. “This has been going on for 35 years, so it’s not going to be 12 months in which the goal is going to be reached.”